On oak branches hang frosted leaves– Brittle, icy, and walnut brown– Among stones, wolves, owls, swans, and geese, Where flakes of snow fall thickly down. Fragrant pines and gnarled cedars stand In a gorge by the frozen stream Where fog lies in a milky band, And the sun makes the clear ice gleam.
Through this cold, all solitary, Walks a man most melancholy. All he owns is all he carries: His bread, water, hopes, and follies. He recalls a girl from his past. He dreads the long, poor road ahead For darkness here is most unkind. He has no place to lay his head.
He treks across the snowy plains Past the scrub oak, the pines, and streams, His mind is hard, his body pained. His clothing is worn at the seams. The moon rises, new and dark. Stars are woven like fishing nets. The land lies daunting, grim, and stark.
The Skeleton Train is the story of a train of skeletons who steam into a quiet village on one snowy winter’s night. They are celebrating a girl, and her father–a terrible, violent man–cannot understand why.
I wrote The Skeleton Train when I was 23, then I did nearly nothing with it for more than a decade. But the story always stayed on my mind. When I re-read it yesterday, I only changed a few commas here and there, and I took out a pair of words that I added seven years ago; they were not part of the original draft.
Snow fell, and the wind pushed it into drifts. Railroad tracks carved past glacial lakes. The night slept: the trees resting their needles, the drowsy flakes blanketing the white hills, the mute town lights in the distance winking good night.
Aboard the screaming train, the skeletons shrieked.
Inside the compartment, fire red rugs rippled, and candles swung on a chandelier, flinging wax and spitting drops of fire. Splintery tables and chipped chairs rocked side to side and beat against one another’s legs as the silver, speeding train yanked around corners and bulleted up and down hills. Scenery whipped by the window: trees, boulders, and mountains.
The skeletons wore gruesome grins, and their heads were bone-white, round, and rough. Their arms flailed, long and fleshless; the skeletons stretched them out above their heads, pushed them down below their waists, sashayed them at their sides. Circling madly the room, shrieking, throwing their heads back, shaking their hands in the air, pushing off chairs and tables, the skeletons clattered their bones with their dance, and their shadows—hideous, porous—were thrown against the walls by the candle chandelier.
Ahead of the silver train, a tunnel yawned.
The train shot through the tunnel, throwing the skeletons’ car into near blackness, the compartment lit only by the swinging chandelier. Magnified in the tunnel, the train’s screams rose shrilly, cracking the silence of the peaceful night. When the train shot out of the tunnel, a light in a hushed, distant town winked yellow. As the train steamed nearer, lights in the town began flicking on. The lights winked one at a time, then a few at a time sporadically throughout the town, then in great numbers, until the whole town was lit, and the town clock—which read twelve minutes to the witching hour—was bathed in an artificial glow.
With a wail of brakes the skeleton train, whose windows were dark nightmares, save for the single lit window through which the skeletons could be seen, screeched into the station. A whoosh of its brakes announced the termination of its journey, and the locomotive exhaled a jet of white steam which hung sleepily in the snow chilled air. Some of the town’s folk nearest the station came to their doorsteps, but none spoke. Many people wore pajamas with slippers on their feet. Other people stayed inside, wrapped in robes, their faces pressed against the glass of a window to see the spectral sight.
The train door slid open, and an inferno of red light silhouetted the skeletons. The skeletons stood in the doorway. There were five, all identical. One stood with crossed legs, and an arm hanging by its side. This skeleton leaned against the frame of the train door, and it drummed its fingers slowly on the metal frame, one after the other. The pinky started first. One. The ring finger followed. Two. Then all the skeleton’s fingers clicked against the cold steel frame. A second skeleton stood with crossed arms, and a third skeleton slowly extended its arm out the train door and turned over its hand. The skeleton extended a single finger, and on its tip landed a snowflake.
A few moments passed in undisturbed silence. Then the five skeletons hopped from the train, their bones bending so their elbows nearly touched the ground when they landed. The snow before the skeletons had already been trampled; footprints meandered across the snow and a red splash lay in a frozen pool from a littered raspberry ice. Slowly, their knees bending, their hollow eye sockets searching, their arms swinging at their ossified sides, the skeletons proceeded up the main street of the town.
The street was an old one, older than the town. The houses that lined the street were pushed together, like the apartments of New York City, and before each house lay a tiny plot of land for a front yard. The land seemed not much bigger than a postage stamp. The houses were narrow, mostly two stories, sometimes three. The windows were lit. The street terminated in a doughnut shaped cul-de-sac, and the tall town clock, which read five minutes to the witching hour, stood stiff as bone in the center of the circle. With a gold façade and architecture like Big Ben, this timekeeper gonged the hours.
The skeletons walked down the street, pausing now and then to look at the numbers on the doors. Snowflakes fluttered through their ribs, and a rogue flake fell into the eye socket of one skeleton. The skeletons turned their heads; they took measured steps. One checked the clock. There still were no sounds in the street, and the white jet of steam that the locomotive had released hung dormant in the air.
Watching from their doorstep was an old couple. The man wore blue striped pajama pants, brown leather insulated shoes, and he held an unlit pipe between his teeth. His wife—stooped, bent, with silver hair kept in a bun by a tortoiseshell clip—stood by his side. She kept a cane in her right hand, gold-rimmed glasses on her nose, and her breath blew pearl smoke from ancient lips. As the skeletons passed by, viscous as deep sleep, her nod of recognition was nearly imperceptible.
The skeletons stopped at a door near the end of the street. It was the door to one of the few single story houses, and a mother and daughter stood staring through a window. She was taller than her mother now, wearing short blue shorts and a t-shirt. One of the skeletons raised its hand to knock. Its hand paused, rapt and pristine in the cemetery silent air, before falling with a hollow sound upon the door. At the precise moment the skeleton’s knuckles rapped the door, the bone stiff clock in the cul-de-sac gonged the witching hour.
The door creaked open, and a man’s head filled the space between the door and the frame. He peered out, ghastly and thin, with a shriveled mustache and brown and white thin hair to his shoulders.
“What do you want? I’ve got nothing for you. Get on with yourselves.”
The man began to shut the door, but the skeleton who had knocked lifted a finger in the air. As the man closed the door further, the skeleton gently laid the tip of its finger against the door and pushed the door open wide. On the skeleton’s face was a hideous grin, and each skeleton behind this first wore the same. The five skeletons walked in, and the last skeleton, nodding, shut the door. It put its arm against the door, turned the handle, and pushed the door closed, never making a sound.
“They’re lovely,” the young woman whispered.
“Yes. They are,” murmured her mother distantly, remembering the time she had seen them before. She squeezed her daughter’s shoulder.
The five skeletons stood near the end of a long table. The tablecloth was frost white, immaculate, and on it stood two candles with tapered, Christmassy light bulbs in place of wicks. The skeletons looked around the room slowly, and one skeleton picked up a picture off the top of a black piano near the fireplace. The skeleton wiped away a hazy film of dust. The photo showed the young woman as an infant, bundled in pink wool. The skeleton set the photograph back in its place.
The father had backed away when the skeletons came into the house, but now he stepped forward, “You can’t come in here,” he said loudly, gesturing toward the door with his hands. “I didn’t invite you in.” His hands gripped the back of a chair so hard that his veins pulsed.
He tried shooing them to the door again with his hands, then turned his head towards his daughter, “Run to your room Wendy, quick now!”
“No, I’ll stay to see the skeletons.”
“You’ll do what I tell you,” he answered, keeping his eyes on the skeletons.
A skeleton dragged a finger across the tablecloth. The skeleton turned its hand over and looked at its finger, which had not a trace of any dust.
“I washed it today,” said Wendy, before she thought not to let her secret out.
“I’ll thank you to shut your mouth,” said Wendy’s father. “And I’ll ask you another time,” turning back to the skeletons, “—because I’m being as nice as I know how—to get out of my house before I get angry.”
The skeleton who had wiped its finger across the tablecloth showed its spotless finger to the other four skeletons and snapped the fingers of its other hand. One skeleton leaned over to examine the finger. This skeleton stretched out a finger of its own, to touch the finger that had touched the cloth. Bone touched bone.
Another skeleton looked at the finger. This skeleton tossed its rough, bald head back, opening wide its mouth in voiceless laughter, its thin fingers wrapping around its ribs. A fourth began to jig its feet, its toes clicking on the hardwood. It opened its mouth, as if it was shouting.
“What are you doing?” demanded Wendy’s father. “I want you out of my house!” He picked up the dining room chair by its back, and he slammed it against the floor. Its legs produced a cacophonic clatter.
Wendy’s father stood at the corner of the long dining table, his whiskered jaw jutting and his hair hanging down like icicles from bad water. A few feet away stood his wife and Wendy, and across the table, a few steps past its end, a fireplace sunk into the wall with red embers still breathing in the crevices of black logs. Wendy’s father eyed the poker, heavy black iron, standing near the hearth.
Wendy’s mother followed his eyes. “Oh God, Jim,” she murmured so softly only she could hear, “Why is it always violence?”
The skeletons paid him no mind. The skeletons shrieked, circled, linked hands. They tossed back their heads, swinging their shoulders, kicking their feet, laughing soundlessly.
“They’re so joyful,” whispered Wendy.
“I’ve had enough!” Jim roared, gripping the dining room chair and tossing it against the wall so hard that one leg cracked. “Get out, you demons! Get the hell out of my house! You come in here without my permission, and I’ll break your bones!” Rushing to the fireplace, Jim snatched the poker up, accidentally catching its hook on a log in his haste, sending sparks whizzing up the chimney and rolling the logs.
“You two, to your rooms, the both of you! I’m throwing these skeletons out of my house!”
“Don’t you understand?” exclaimed his wife. “They’re celebrating for Wendy!”
He turned, leering through crooked teeth and past the thin strands of hair that covered his eyes. “You’ll both do what I say you will, otherwise I’ll make you feel my palms!”
At that, the skeletons’ dance stopped. The skeletons ceased their muted laughter, silent singing, and noiseless shrieking, craning their necks and peering forward with ghastly grins to observe the scene.
“Daddy, don’t, don’t, don’t!” pleaded Wendy. “Haven’t you seen them before?”
“He hasn’t seen them before,” said her mother, keeping her eyes fixed on Jim. “I never knew your father when they celebrated for me. He can’t know. But we can help him understand. Just listen to us for a moment, will you? The skeletons, Dear, they’re here—”
“They’re here for Wendy! I heard you the first time—But what kind of creature do you want to have in your house? A monster? If you want to be their mistress, Dear, go on and take ’em—side with a skeleton over your own flesh and blood husband.”
“Oh, no no no no no! it’s not that at all!” his wife cried, “You don’t understand! You never understand!” She looked across the long dining room table, seeming to plead him with her eyes. “Say something,” she begged, holding her hands together. “Say anything! Help me, won’t you? Just a little?”
“Just go to bed, will you?” her husband said, tucking his hair behind his ears. “Or do I have to use force?”
She looked at him, knew his face, and clutched her daughter’s arm. “Wendy… Honey… I’m so sorry… Let’s just go to bed, now dear. We have to go to bed.”
“Mom!” cried Wendy. “Don’t! It’s my night!” She yanked her arm away, crossing her arms across her chest. “I want to see them! I’m going to stay!”
“You’ll go to bed, girl, when I say you will!” he said, keeping a wary eye on the skeletons.
“I’m not your girl anymore.”
“You’re my baby until I tell you otherwise. Now. To bed, the both of you!”
“Honey, please,” implored Wendy’s mother, taking her daughter’s hand, keeping her eye on the poker the whole while.
“Why?!” exclaimed Wendy, gesturing with her hands, “The skeletons have come to celebrate me!”
“Because I said so!” He took two quick steps towards her, and Wendy and his wife screamed and fled the dining room.
Jim turned to the skeletons, his fist clenched near his chest, “And I’m coming now for you, I am—and I’ll show you the poker. I’ll break your bones!” He heard two doors slam shut in succession and two locks turn. “By God! I won’t have doors locked in my house! They’ll never keep this man out!”
Poker in hand, he darted from the room and disappeared down the poorly lit hallway. A heavy thud could be heard, and a shrill scream flickered from behind a locked door. The sound of crunching, tearing wood could be heard.
The skeletons turned towards one another, staring into one another’s eye sockets. One dragged a finger across the table cloth again and showed it, as if to bring a second chorus of laughter, but the white finger only snuffed the electric candles and threw the room into a darkness so black that the white finger became luminescent. The finger glowed white in the inky darkness, and slowly the house lights were restored, until finally the skeleton’s finger no longer seemed to glow. A woman’s scream reverberated against the walls, and Wendy’s father cursed. The poker sounded again on that locked door. One skeleton opened the house’s front door, and the remaining four skeletons followed it outside. The shutting of the front door muffled the screams within. The street stretched empty. Snow fell. The snow which had been earlier trampled by boots had become soft dimples by the falling snow. The town’s clock, even from a distance, seemed taller.
Chancing to look from her window, the old woman with the silver hair saw the skeletons. “Harry! Come look!” After a few moments, her husband joined her at the window. “The skeletons are going back to their train – it’s only a quarter past the witching hour!”
“Something’s gone wrong,” he agreed.
“I bet it was that awful father,” she mused, “Look at how those skeletons slink! They ought to be dancing!”
“They ought to be, I know.”
“Do you remember what it was like for us, that first time?”
“It was that husband!” she said again. “He doesn’t understand anything, and I know Christine had Alan before him; why, everyone in town knew but Jim, he was so blind.”
She paused, tracing her finger up and down the curtain. “They were coming to celebrate Wendy, and he ruined it for her.”
“It’s the way of the world, honey,” her husband said sympathetically. He took one last look at the skeletons then hobbled back to bed.
The Man of the Prairie
A boy was once born on the prairie
In a bleak night’s blizzard in January
The drifts blew high against posts
And the wind howled like wild ghosts
He grew to be a hard man and solitary.
A boy was once born in Afghanistan
Near the peak of a Hindu Kush mountain
He came during a short, gentle spring
To a mother who would sing
And he became a kind and gentle man.
The City Girl
There once was a girl born in the city
In a neighborhood both dark and gritty
Her mother gave her books and red bows
Her father called her his lovely rose
And she grew up to be both bright and pretty.
The Political Scene There once was a political scene
Where politicians were awful and mean
They loved to berate and to hate
And when they called themselves great
The people wished they’d get COVID-19.
The Coronavirus There once was a coronavirus
And news of it did much to tire us
All the games were postponed
And the children sent home
So the disease’s demise was desirous.